Since having a second child, I've adjusted my thoughts on how children play. In the past I always felt guilty for not keeping my first child constantly entertained. I don't think it's uncommon. Many parents feel the need to have their children enrolled in numerous activities so they get a step ahead in those earlier years. Or surround them with a mass amount of toys so they aren't bored for too long.
While I do feel that it's important to expose children to various activities in life to see what sparks an interest, and to help them with their social skills, I also feel it's extremely important that they are given space at times so that they can develop their imagination. Rather than having parents instruct them on how to do everything.
My thoughts are that constant pushing leads children to feel like they are never doing enough. Because as a child they were always pushed to do more activities, achieve more and learn faster.
It's something that is bothering me at the moment with having my son in Prep (in Australia we have a year of school called Prep prior to year 1). He just turned 5 years old and is coming home completely exhausted because they are sitting for a large amount of time and learning. Of course learning is a beautiful thing indeed and at that age they are like sponges - they pick up everything easily. But I question whether it's too much too soon. And feel that exploring and free play at that young age is so important.
In the book The Danish Way of Parenting written by Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl, they say that it's important to create a sensory-rich environment coupled with play and to allow children to explore freely. It helps develop an internal compass and they are more likely to master something that brings them joy and do work in their adulthood which aligns with their true desires.
I remember when I was younger saying that I was bored, often. But boredom as I'm learning, isn't always a bad thing. It encourages a child to use their imagination and make their own choices. If as parents we run to their aid with an activity, then it doesn't allow them time to decide on their own. We're providing a quick fix. A distraction.
Many of us, even adults could learn a thing or two about listening to our internal drive. And find activities for ourselves that give us that sense of flow. As we become adults we tend to forget about those activities. But it's so important to our happiness and wellbeing. And those times when we are left alone.
There is also a psychological term called locus of control. There is internal and external locus of control. A person with a strong internal locus of control has the power to make choices and control the outcomes of their life - their own success or failure. If they have a healthy internal locus of control, then they feel they have a sense of control over their own life. They attribute success to their own efforts. They are better at taking responsibility for their actions, and they grow from failure.
If they have a strong external locus of control, they often feel they are controlled by outside influences, attribute their success to luck or fate, and are less likely to make the effort to learn. This can lead to feelings of helplessness. Anxiety. And relying on external approval or praise rather than trusting themselves. They are more likely to believe that they are not in control of their lives.
So respecting a child's desire for independence and helping them develop it is important in those earlier years.
Many of us have become what we call 'helicopter parents'. Which I'll admit to being at times. You're quick to jump in when something seems unsafe. To stop your child from stealing a toy from another. To rescue them when being pushed by another. But children learn through challenging themselves. By testing the amount of stress they can handle. If we intervene too quickly then they are not learning how to cope with fearful situations. They become more resilient when faced with adversity.
Of course there is a limit of what to subject them to. It's that fine line of how much stress or danger is enough, without it causing severe damage or harm. It's our role as a parent to ensure our children are in a safe environment, but also allow them to take a tumble from time-to-time.
So to summarise...
If we are providing constant entertainment to children through organised activities, toys and electronic devices, hovering to make sure they don't get into danger, then what is this showing them?
That they are possibly not in control of themselves and the decisions they make in life. That someone will always rescue them when they face difficult situations. That they won't learn to listen to their inner voice. And to possibly fear boredom and those times when they are alone.
Something we do now with our children on a weekend is have quiet activity time. Where we all choose an activity to do on our own for an hour. At first it was difficult for our son to decide so a number of ideas were suggested. But now he is becoming more confident and independent in his choice. Choosing something that he enjoys. My daughter, well, she is a little under two and doesn't quite grasp the concept yet. But it's good practice. And as my husband and I are both introverts and need quiet time ourselves, it gives us a little mid morning breather. Which helps us be more patient throughout the day.
As a parent the challenge is to find that balance between giving children enough attention, and not giving them too much. I think when we do sit and play that it's crucial to give them our complete attention, rather than sit distracted on our phones or pretend to listen. But if we can also help our children to explore their imagination through free independent play, then it can be a great thing for their development and creative minds.